Friday, 3 December 2021

SQUIRRELS: SHADOW TAILS

One of the little animals I see daily in Kitsilano, Vancouver, are the very busy, highly comic rodents we know as squirrels. 

They spend their days busily gathering and caching food and their nights resting from all that hard work. 

My neighbourhood has mostly Eastern Gray squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis (Gmelin, 1788) who come in a colour palette of reddish-brown, grey (British spelling) and black. 

These cuties have bushy tails and a spring in their step — racing around gathering nuts, finding secret hiding spots to cache them, teasing dogs and generally exuding cuteness.

We find the first fossil evidence of tree squirrels in the Pleistocene. At least twenty specimens have been found of Sciurus carolinensis in Pleistocene outcrops in Florida on the eastern coast of the United States. Over time, their body size grew larger then shrunk down to the 400 to 600 g (14 to 21 oz) weight we see them today.  

Eastern Gray squirrels have two breeding seasons in December-January and June-July. This year has been unseasonably warm. On Vancouver Island, the Eastern Grays bred again in early September. One wonders if the heat dome killed off the July litter, and with the return of more favourable weather, the parents have been induced to breed again.

While they are not native to Vancouver, they are plentiful. They were introduced to the region over a hundred years ago and have been happily multiplying year upon year. 

Our native species are the smaller, reddish-brown, rather shy Douglas squirrels, Tamiasciurus douglasii (Bachman, 1839), and the nocturnal Northern Flying Squirrels, Glaucomys sabrinus (Shaw, 1801).  

Sciurus, is derived from two Greek words, skia, meaning shadow, and oura, meaning tail. The name choice is poetic, alluding to squirrels sitting in the shadow of their tails. 

The specific epithet, carolinensis, refers to the Carolinas on the eastern seaboard of the United States, an area that includes both North and South Carolina. It was here that the species was first recorded and still rather common. In the United Kingdom and Canada, Sciurus carolinensis is referred to as the Eastern Gray or grey squirrel — and though adorable is an invasive species. 

In the United States, Eastern is used to differentiate the species from the Western Gray or Silver-Gray squirrel, Sciurus griseus, (Ord, 1818). 

The Ord here, of course, is George Ord, the American zoologist who named the species based on notes recorded by Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s. If you fancy a read, check out his article from 1815, "Zoology of North America." It is charming, anachronistic and the first systemic zoology of America by an American. 

In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest, use the word ta̱minasux̱, to express: "that is a squirrel." 

The word for shadow in Kwak'wala is gagumas and tail is ha̱t̕sa̱x̱ste' — so I will think of these wee wonders of the Order Rodentia in the family Sciuridae as the Gagumas ha̱t̕sa̱x̱ste' of Khahtsahlano.